Monday, 14 June 2010

Going To The Wall

DAY 23:

Ahhh, it feels good to be back on the road again for what will be the final phase of my epic Land's End to John O'Groats bus trip.

I've spent the last couple of days at home getting cleaned up after a long two and a half week trek all the way from London. Now, with a bag full of clean T-shirts and socks, I feel almost ready for anything!

Today's section of the journey took me from Newcastle city centre firstly to Hexham, which is half way up the Tyne Valley. I could have used a number of buses to get there, but I deliberately chose the rather bizarrely-numbered AD 122 service – bizarre, that is, until you realise that the year AD 122 was when the Emperor Hadrian ordered work to start on what was to become known as Hadrian's Wall.

The AD 122 runs right along the length of Hadrian's Wall – indeed, on some stretches right along the top of it – from Newcastle city centre to Carlisle, calling in at each and every important Roman site along the way, such as the spectacular Housesteads Fort, Vindolanda and Birdoswald. Just as important, however, the route takes in some of the wildest and most beautiful scenery the north of England can offer running as it does along the northern ridge of the Tyne Valley and offering views across to the Scottish borders, the northern Pennines and the Lake District.

I stopped off in Hexham for a while, then got back on the AD 122 for the run along what is possibly the finest part of the route – from the Chollerford river crossing near Chester's Roman Fort to the ruins of Birdoswald, which are so close to the road that they practically brush the side of the bus.

After a pause for lunch in Carlisle, and a peruse around this surprisingly attractive red stone city, it was back on the bus, this time Stagecoach's 79 service to Dumfries, though an area which for all it is flat and somewhat featureless still manages to form part of the Tourist Route to Edinburgh, the Solway Coast Heritage Trail and the Burns Heritage Trail. Not bad for flat farmland!

We eventually breach the border at Gretna and I begin Scot Spotting. Sure enough, scarcely a mile into Scotland I spot my first pub car park sign imploring customers to 'Haste Ye Back!' I was expecting red-headed locals wearing kilts, playing bagpipes and brandishing tins of shortbread to appear at any moment, but fortunately they didn't, which suggests that people outside of the licensed trade probably have a little more self respect.

However, tHpweverhey still have a cheesy, out-of-town designer retail park thing surrounded by car parks and called the Gretna Gateway Outlet Village, which frankly I think is unforgivable.

At least Gretna gives you your first clear view of the mighty Solway Firth, and it's a cracker, with the mountains of the Lake District piled up behind like some kind of improbable film set. It's a stunning view of dark mountains viewed over sparkling sea, but the scenery keeps getting better. A little further on the Galloway Hills start to make their presence felt on the horizon, whilst to the north east the Scottish borders hove mistily into view. This is a great place to be, yet comparatively few visitors come here. Which is great if you like a bit of peace and quiet, but not so good if you manufacture tartan wigs or shortbread for tourists.

I'm staying in Dumfries, the so-called Queen of the South (according to the local council's marketing and shortbread distribution department) and it betrays that look of slightly impoverished greatness that are the hallmark of many Scottish towns which have been built on Victorian money. It has, however, one major saving grace – a deeply attractive river which courses through the heart of the town and is crossed by a couple of spirited stone bridges. It's an animated and tumbling force which helps to bring the whole town to life, so much so that you can forgive it it's many (too many) take-aways and it's grey streets of boarded -up shops.

Tomorrow I head deeper into Galloway, the forgotten Scotland that so few people know about, before launching myself up the coast and into Scotland's premier city, Glasgow.

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